The Host With Hidden Talent

Before giving his first musical performance, 'A Star is Born' MC Zvika Hadar wonders how many people will come to watch him and hopes they will laugh for the right reasons.

It could have been a good opening for a satirical skit about the mainstream takeover of Israeli music: Zvika Hadar performing at the Piano Festival. Except it's really happening. And it emerges that Hadar, known mainly as the host of the television program "A Star is Born" (the Israeli version of "American Idol"), began playing the piano when he was just six years old, growing up in Be'er Sheva. He even has an entire album recorded and hidden away in a drawer. He knows he'll put it out eventually, and maybe even sooner than he thought.

Like the contestants on "A Star is Born" - which selects only a few musical talents from thousands of candidates - Hadar, 43, is sending himself out on an audition. The event will take place this coming Thursday at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv, as part of the 11th Piano Festival. This year, for the first time, the festival is under the artistic direction of Etti Aneta-Segev. TV producer Tamira Yardeni was the one who told Aneta-Segev about Hadar's musical talent. He says she hinted to him that it's basically "now or never."

'Good, it's going well'

During rehearsal this week, Hadar wavered between ease, amusement, embarrassment and nervousness. In the foyer of Hook Studios in Tel Aviv stand two parallel keyboards and in front of them, facing each other, sit Hadar and Tal Forer, the musical director of his performance. Between them is cellist Maya Belsitzman. On Hadar's keyboard, next to a worn-out notebook from which he reads the song lyrics, sits a large ceramic ashtray with cigar smoke rising from it. From time to time, he gets up from his chair, paces around a little, puffs on the cigar, sets it down and takes his seat again. Now and then Hadar says, though it's not quite clear to whom: "Good, it's going well." He sings songs in the second person, and then also in the first person. "The desire to be silent and to stop talking awakens within me," he sings in one, "to gaze from afar like an actor in a part, who feels like a clerk, reciting the same thing."

"I don't know how large of an audience will show up," he says with the insecurity typical of a starting musician, but less common when it comes to an entertainer of the first rank. "Anyone who pays money to hear me sing is realizing a dream for me. [And I say this] without a drop of cynicism, because there's a lot of cynicism surrounding this issue. I've had five to seven years to grapple with this."

Hadar's childhood memories of the piano are in fact memories of his mother. He recalls how on the days of his piano lessons, she would come home early from work and take two buses with him to the conservatory. "Sometimes the second bus would be late and we'd walk for about a quarter of an hour. She would buy me grissini [bread] sticks at the grocery store on the corner. Even then I was a chubby boy."

His mother came to every lesson with him until he reached the fourth grade and began to take the bus alone. Then their "joint outing," as he calls it, came to an end. Back then he played mostly classical works and wasn't open to "music from outside." After high school he stopped playing for a long period of time.

Like those who audition

Shortly after Hadar started to study acting, his father passed away and the piano came back into his life. It served him quite a good amount in his studies, for example when he composed numbers for musicals. He also played a bit on the TV show "The Comedy Store." Over the years he continue to play, "in the dark, in my study." He owes this latest emergence into the spotlight to Forer, who heard him play during the intermission of a Hanukkah production for children and urged him to share the material with him.

"I thought it was strange," Hadar says, "that it was too personal, that people would laugh and that it probably wasn't good. Like the people who audition for 'A Star is Born' and aren't aware. We worked on the disc for two years, we recorded it here and it's ready, but I don't want to release it because I'm scared."

What scares you?

"My television persona is made up of stand-up comedy, humor, entertainment, commercial fluff, Channel 2 and everything that implies - the good and the bad. I've been behind a mask my whole life. Even when I'm hosting 'A Star is Born' I'm playing a role, it isn't me, even though I'm just wearing a suit. I don't talk or defend myself like I do in stand-up comedy. Even opening up to Tal [Forer] took me a long time. It has been a long process."

Forer believes it will be easier for the audience to digest a live performance, rather than hearing a song by Hadar on the radio. "It's more intimate and he's there and also talking. It will be hard for people to accept that he's a singer. I'm aware that it's problematic." Nonetheless, when Forer played the recordings for others anonymously, they were met with good reactions. "People thought it was [Rami] Kleinstein or a new singer," relates Forer.

"This is the first time a performer's resume has worked to his detriment," says Hadar. "It's part of my experience, sure. I am going to have an awfully good time. I'm going to sing, and have butterflies in my stomach on a whole different level. Something rare is coming out. I am having a really good time and just hoping that everyone isn't going to suffer. There will probably be laughs, but not intentional ones."

Not everything is black and white

The 11th Piano Festival will in fact focus on hosting musicians who are identified mainly with the guitar, except perhaps for the festival's opening event on Tuesday, which is already sold out: the premiere of Shlomi Shaban's new album "Migdal Hapizmon" (an additional performance has been scheduled for December 1 at the Mann Auditorium).

A performance of "The Streets Take off Slowly" will be featured on Wednesday - a show which in 24 songs depicts 24 hours in Tel Aviv, accompanied by documentary photos of the scenes and events mentioned; participants include Yahli Sobol, Amir Lev, Gilad Kahana, Efrat Gosh and Yuval Mendelson, under the musical direction of Adi Rennert. On the same day, Rona Kenan will perform a guitar version of her latest album, "Songs for Yoel," alongside jazz pianist Omer Klein.

On Thursday Izhar Cohen and Rea Mochiach, Vered Picker and Nurit Galron, Amir Lev and Assaf Talmudi, Aviv Guedj, Rafi Persky and Muki, and Avigail Roz will all give performances. There will also be an homage to the album "Haoneg Haba" by Hamehashefot under the musical director of Sheila Farber, as well as a performance by four young artists - Chen Klein, Amir Barnet, Noam Pinhasov and Gal De Paz.

On Friday Shlomo Gronich will collaborate with the members of the Marsh Dondurma ensemble, and Yermi Kaplan will host Jango for a performance of songs from his first album. Saturday evening will see an evening of homage to one of the outstanding guitarists of Israeli rock, Yitzhak Klepter, who will host Sharon Karlin and Barak Gabison. The festival's finale, to take place on Sunday, will be an acoustic evening with Yehuda Poliker playing some of his more recent songs - accompanied by two pianos, three guitars and percussion instruments.